Memories of Restoring a Boat at Traverse City's West Bay Boat Works

Northern Michigan Boating: As the years have passed, West Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, in Traverse City, has bestowed a lifetime of fond memories upon me and my family—fishing for salmon and lakers, diving deep for clams on the sandy bottom, catching crayfish under full moons, hiking Power Island just offshore in Traverse City—but I have always wanted to experience the Lake Michigan waters from a seat in my own sailboat. Invitations to sail are fine when they arrive, but when a steady breeze fills in the Traverse City bay, and the sky runs clear and blue, the water calls for more than passive viewing. On Northern Michigan summer days like those, being boatless becomes downright painful. Perhaps it is the way sails glow white against the sapphire water of Traverse City’s West Bay, or maybe it’s simply the siren song of sailing, that esoteric culture of adventure that stirs something in one’s soul.

I know it has stirred mine, so much so that a print of Winslow Homer’s “Breezing Up” hangs above my desk in the classroom back in Kansas City, and on gray days of rain and winter cold it has given me hope that summer will indeed return, that I will be fortunate enough to once again fly from my landlocked world and escape to Traverse City in Northern Michigan. It was on one of those gray days in March that I succumbed to buying a sailboat of my own.

The ad was for a 1970 Interlake, an 18-foot, one-design sloop. On Thursday evenings near the Grand Traverse Yacht Club in Traverse City, the Interlake fleet can be spotted waltzing across the Lake Michigan bay, spinnakers marking the horizon like waves of butterflies, their colors random and bright. The boats are fast and graceful, their masts tall, their sails powerful. Night after night the scene troubled my sleep, and finally, after a flurry of emails and phone calls to the owner, I succumbed to that sailing siren and purchased a boat I had yet to see in person.

As an English teacher, I have always looked forward to summer, but the “Summer of the Sailboat,” as it has since been deemed by my family, promised even more time and fun on that freshwater wonder ocean known as Lake Michigan. Like I so often do, I had created an epic world around the purchase; it had become something that would radically change our lives, something to further connect us to the water world of Traverse City. But, like so many of my dreams—and I have plenty to go around—they often fall short of reality. I am usually too blinded by excitement to sense the imminent letdown, but my friends and family can see it brewing from miles away.

When I picked up the boat near Long Lake in Traverse City, its cockpit was filled with leaves and sticks, water from winter’s snowmelt. Spider cracks marred the deck and hull, whose whiteness had long since faded with time and weather. But the boat was mine, and after loading the sails, rudder, and tiller into the bed of my truck, I drove off with a sense that the purchase was the beginning of a very humbling experience.

In the days that followed, my family and I grew to know the old boat, but not before learning to respect the afternoon sea breeze that calls forth those rolling waves and whitecaps of Lake Michigan. There was a harrowing landing that brought gasps from the happy hour crowd at Apache Trout Grill in Traverse City, and had it not been for a friend who broke away from his rehearsal dinner at the yacht club to help me, I would never have made it back to shore. With each outing, however, we grew more comfortable sailing her, and we hoisted the sails whenever we had the chance. Then one day, just as we were bringing the boat back to the launch, I noticed the floor of the boat undulating with each set of waves, much like a raft losing its air. The floor, I realized, was rotten, and I felt too sick to even talk about it.

The dire condition of the old boat became an obsession. There had to be some sort of recourse, a way to bring the boat back in line with my summer dreams, those calendar images that make Northern Michigan summers what they are. My sailing friends thought I should sell the boat. Get my money back. Count it as a loss. But I knew what I had to do, and that afternoon, boat in tow, I drove down to West Bay Boat Works on Carter Road in Traverse City. I had never actually been to the place, but the man who owns it is a legend around the Great Lakes and beyond.

Turning down the gravel drive in Traverse City, I saw boats of every shape and size and state of disrepair emerge through the heavily weeded property. Old Hobie Cats, Lasers, and Lidos, all dinghies, speckled the ground, but large fixed-keeled boats—vessels that seemed too large to imagine on land—slumbered like giants in their cradles, each in need of one repair or another. At the back of the property, two metal buildings the size of small airplane hangars rattled in the wind, and a mixture of Steely Dan, high-pitched grinding, and the chatter from an air compressor emanated from one of them. As I approached the sliding doors, a Siberian husky greeted me and alerted his owner to my arrival.

Rich Core, owner of West Bay Boat Works in Traverse City, climbed out from under one of the sailboats, his tan face dusty. He wore flip-flops and an old T-shirt advertising a famous Key West regatta. A respirator was tilted back on his head, and his steady blue eyes were inquisitive. He gave his dog, Zorro, a perfunctory scratch behind the ears, then asked how he could help. I introduced myself and explained that I taught English during the school year and spent summers in Traverse City with my family.

Trying not to reveal the urgency behind my plan, I asked him about the boat he was working on, the one that glistened under the fluorescent lights. Its hull was flag blue, the cockpit teak and glossy—the kind of boat I dreamed of owning, the kind I had wanted in the first place. He explained how he had re-glassed part of the hull, faired the keel, and brought the brightwork back to its original luster. His vocabulary was foreign to me, as were many of the tools he mentioned in our conversation. Mind you, I’ve framed houses, broken down engines, and dabbled in the art of repairing old, broken objects, but never in my life had a craft felt or sounded so foreign to me.

Motioning to my old Interlake, I uttered the words that had been banging around in my head since breakfast: “I’ve never restored an old sailboat before, but if you teach me something about it, I’ll do whatever you need to have done around here. I’ll take out the trash, mow, run errands, clean the shop, you name it.” Rich paused, then walked over to my old boat and ran the palm of his hand over the deck as if taking the pulse of the vessel. Then he thumped the hull, stood up straight and crossed his arms. I told him about the wavy floor, and his eyes narrowed. As we stood there in the dusty boatyard, a breeze spawned a dust devil that whirled itself into the weeds. And just as I was beginning to think the whole idea ridiculous, Rich nodded approvingly and spoke: “The first thing you need to do is take pictures of the boat from stem to stern so that you can put it all back together. When you finish with the pictures, strip the boat of all its hardware. You can work over in that building,” he said, pointing to the other hangar.

The austerity of his reply told me that my task would be neither easy nor fun. His demeanor also told me that I had just assumed the lowly rank of apprentice. I did not know Rich at that point, but in retrospect I figure he accepted my offer not because he needed my help, but because he wanted to see if I had what it took to put in the hours— the literal blood, sweat, and tears—to scratch the surface of what he does every day. It would not have surprised me if, after I had driven away that first day, he had shared a chuckle with Zorro about my plan. And so began another Traverse City adventure, one that promised both success and failure, that humbling learning curve that my soul somehow craves from time to time.

Restoring the Interlake was nothing like I had imagined; there was little romance in it to be sure, and everything I set out to do proved more challenging than I’d expected. If something did seem easy, Rich assured me that I was going about it the wrong way. I don’t recall how long it took to take all the hardware off, but I do remember having to grind and cut some of it from the boat. Time and weather and the power of wind have a strange way of bending bolts and seizing threads. But by the third day, I had managed to strip the boat of its cleats, blocks, bow eye, and bailers, not to mention the items I could not name. Devoid of hardware, the naked boat looked ready for the dumpster, the task ahead of me, daunting.

The following week, though, Rich greeted me with a large Porter Cable grinder in one hand and a respirator in the other. As he explained how to repair cracked or broken fiberglass, Van Morrison belted out “Gloria” in the background. Donning the respirator, Rich ground out an area of cracked fiberglass the size of a small Frisbee, leaving a perfectly beveled edge that would make the glasswork seamless. He then handed me the grinder and the respirator, and I tried my hand at it. As the grinder writhed in my hands, fiberglass dust flew in every direction, and my attempt to emulate his work left an uneven cut and ragged edges. Rich proved more patient than I had expected, however, and he pointed out how to make the transition out of the grind, how to start the cuts. After a few more attempts, he handed me a wax pencil and told me to circle all the areas in need of grinding. For the remainder of that day and over the following week, I ground out fractures and chased spider cracks until I found “clean glass.” I was flying by the seat of my pants, and before long, my sailboat looked like Swiss cheese.

As the Northern Michigan summer days unfolded, Rich showed me how to cut out the floor of the boat and replace the balsa core within. He taught me how to measure and mix epoxy, wet fiberglass fabric, roll air pockets out of the resin. After glassing, I learned how to sand down the edges and fill in the gaps with plastic filler. And I learned to sand, and sand, and sand again, both by hand and with a random orbital sander, until the repair was fair, a word that has since taken on new meaning to me. Rich’s standards were blisteringly high, and every few hours he would show up and, without saying much, run his hand over the work or eye it from a certain angle. Sometimes he would simply shake his head and take up the grinder or the glass, and once again model the proper technique. Other times he would smile and nod and disappear.

In keeping my end of the bargain, I initially felt as inept helping Rich as I did working on my own boat, but over time, I was given more to do. At first I mowed down the chest-high weeds, emptied trashcans, and swept the shop. I coiled air hoses and moved boats around the Traverse City boatyard. I ran errands and provided an extra hand when needed. On one particular hot Northern Michigan summer day, a gentleman from Canada pulled into the yard and left his Melges 24, a racing sailboat, for Rich to repair. I specifically remember that day because it was one of the first days I think he really needed my help.

Calling me into the shop, Rich meticulously put together a system of straps, and together we hoisted that boat 10 feet into the air with an old cradle lift. Then we lowered the 600-pound keel down through the hull and placed it on a dolly. The whole process terrified me, but the since learned that sailors from all over the country, especially Melges owners, bring their boats to him for this difficult work. Over the next week, he faired that bulb keel to perfection, and when the owner came back to Traverse to pick up his boat, he drove off grinning until he was out of sight. I never worked on the keel myself, nor could I have, but participating in the initial process was satisfying enough, as it let me know that I had moved up in the ranks—even if just a little bit.

By the sixth week, I had begun to relish the sights and sounds and smells of the Traverse City shop. The high-pitched grinding and sanding meant progress; the pungent, epoxy-based paints and plastic fillers signaled the final stages of transformation from old to new. As for my own boat, more than 25 areas had been ground down, re-glassed, and faired. Sections from the starboard and port sides of the floor had been replaced with new balsa and an epoxy slurry, the areas surrounding the self-bailers replaced, the boat primed. August’s arrival, however, meant summer had slipped away, and it was time to think about the long drive back home.

Before I left Traverse City, Rich finished the last stage of the restoration, the painting, for it demanded far more skill than a neophyte possessed. And I suppose before the boat was to ever leave his watch, he had to put his own stamp of approval on it, meaning the boat had to look and sail like new. And it did; painted flag blue, the hull was pristine. The deck, to which many Interlake owners have attested, turned out better than new. Rich gave me trouble about having to resand some of the boat to meet his own standards, but by the time I left, by the time I got to know Rich, I expected nothing less.

Looking back on that Northern Michigan summer, there is no doubt that I shaped up the appearance of West Bay Boat Works, but I would be a fool to think I really helped him in any way. In fact, the more time I spend around boats and boatyards, the more I realize that the high weeds and scattered boats are part of the landscape, part of the rhythm of endless hard work that, for the most part, takes place silently behind the scenes in Traverse City and other waterside towns.

As for me, my summer was enriched far beyond the value of time and money spent on the old sloop. Opening myself up to failure and stepping out of my comfort zone proved more satisfying than any other project I have completed. I never truly mastered anything, save for the understanding that having the courage to embark upon something new and challenging adds depth to one’s life. I learned to love the hard work of boat restoration. In a way, I might have proven Rich wrong when he agreed to help me. I might have called his bluff.

Each year when I roll into town, West Bay Boat Works is one of my first stops. The weeds are usually tall, the shop always a bit disheveled, but the work invariably miraculous. Rich’s smile still possesses a bit of I told you so, but now and then he gives me a call to help out. And that is enough for me.

Matthew A. Carolan lives and teaches in Kansas City, Kansas; he summers on West Grand Traverse Bay. [email protected]